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World

Secretary Of State John Kerry Raises Flag At Reopened U.S. Embassy In Cuba

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

John Kerry went to Cuba today, the first American secretary of state to do so in 70 years. He marked the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana with a flag raising.

(APPLAUSE)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The three U.S. Marines who lowered the embassy flag after Cuba and the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations in 1961 returned today. Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco was also there. His poem for the occasion included imagery of reconciliation between the two nations separated by some 90 miles of water.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD BLANCO: (Reading) The end to all our doubts and fears is to gaze into the lucid blues of our shared horizon, to breathe together, to heal together.

SIEGEL: NPR's Michele Kelemen was at the ceremony in Havana. And, Michele, what was it like?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Very hot, Robert, and quite formal, really. I mean, this was an event for Cuban government officials marking this restoration of diplomatic ties, though there were lots of people crowded kind of outside the gates of the embassy on the waterfront to catch a glimpse of the festivities. I heard lots of cheers, especially among the dignitaries in the official gathering when Secretary Kerry talked about how he'd like to see the U.S. Congress move even further and fully lift the embargo. But then he also had quite an interesting message, as well, to the Cubans. He said this embargo is, in some ways, a two-way street, that the Cubans need to make it easier for average people to get benefits from this.

SIEGEL: Now, there was also a delegation, a crowd traveling with Kerry. Who else took this trip with him?

KELEMEN: There were several members of Congress. The only Republican was Jeff Flake of Arizona, a senator, Vermont senator Leahy, who's been very active on this file for a long time. I went down with the members of the House who were equally really eager to see this change - Barbara Lee of California, who's been pushing for an end to the embargo for years and years. One other newcomer, at least for me, was Steve Cohen of Tennessee, and he apparently is a big Minnie Minoso fan, the Cuban baseball player who he met when he was a young child.

SIEGEL: Yes, the Cubans will only refer to him as Orestes Minoso.

KELEMEN: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: But the building that is now the embassy - the U.S. Embassy - is the same building that, for decades, has been the U.S. intersection or mission in Havana. What's the difference now that it's an embassy?

KELEMEN: Well, it's now, you know, a full-fledged embassy. It shows, really, that diplomatic relations are back to normal. And, you know, for the diplomats who work here, they're hoping that they're going to be able to get out and get around the island more often. You know, they've always been under these strict restrictions by the Cubans. They can't leave without getting permission to travel. And now, we're told they're only going to have to notify Cuban authorities when they want to leave and get around the island, so that's a big change. They're hoping that they'll get a better sense of what's going on across the country and maybe encourage more travel and trade with Americans.

SIEGEL: Now, the Obama administration does face criticism from some who are critical of the move to reestablish ties with Cuba. What are they saying?

KELEMEN: Well, particularly today, because there's a lot of criticism that the Obama administration, the State Department, did not invite dissidents to this flag raising ceremony. You know, dissidents have been such a key part of U.S. policy to Cuba for so many years, and they face, you know, daily harassment here. They're arrested, even in large numbers just this week. And the administration's argument is that, you know, this was a government-to-government affair. They didn't want to have dissidents there, and that would mean that Cuban government officials wouldn't come. The State Department did, though, invite dissidents and a broad group of civil society members to an event in the afternoon here in Havana.

SIEGEL: Michele, have you been able to get any sense of the general mood in Havana or how Secretary Kerry is being received?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, it was interesting. He's the first secretary of state to come here since 1945, he says. There wasn't a whole lot on the streets coming in. I mean, we're in these fast motorcades, zipping around. But there was a very large crowd outside the embassy, many with Cuban flags but also a lot with American flags. There does seem to be a lot of interest in at least this new moment in history, this new relationship that was frozen in time for so many years.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen in Havana, in Cuba. Michele, thanks.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.